Cenotes in Mexico: what they are, what to do and where to find them

Who I am
Valery Aloyants

wikipedia.org, lonelyplanet.com

Author and references

What are the cenotes? Where are they located in Mexico?

One of the main features of the whole Yucatan peninsula is to be strewn with cenotes. Traveling the Mexican streets in yours travel route by car in Mexico, you will find how often there are signs for one of these cenote. There are really many.

But what are they? It is about caves of limestone origin that have formed over time.

Millions and millions of years ago the Yucatan Peninsula was submerged. This particular situation made sure that all the territories were covered by corals and fossil elements which thus contributed to the formation of an agglomeration of limestone rocks. Over time, in full ice age, the structure of the Yucateca peninsula changed and the territory became higher than the sea level. The ice, melting and turning into tiny drops of water, gradually eroded the limestone rocks and created these caves and underground rivers. The peculiarity is that these caves are all connected for kilometers and kilometers. If you notice, in the Yucatan there are no visible rivers, they are all underground due to the porosity of the soil and the cenotes are the points where it is possible to observe this great underground ecosystem.

Another peculiarity of the cenote is the presence of stalagmites e stalactites that were formed thanks to the drops that penetrated the ground.

There are different types by cenote:

  • Those completely open, like that of Chichén Itzà where the vegetation, with lianas and branches, helps to make the landscape a postcard.
  • Closed ones, like the two cenotes of Dnitzup, which is accessed by small and humid stairs carved into the rock.

From my point of view the most fascinating are the closed ones. You enter a mysterious environment. A puddle of fresh water underground illuminated only by the beam of light that enters from the small cracks of what I would dare to call the "ceiling" of the cenote.

The importance of the cenote in Mayan culture

As you well know, the Yucatan Peninsula was the home of the Maya dynasty. Their relationship with the gods has always had one strong connotation with the events and places of nature. The cenotes, as well as being a very important source of fresh water, had a mystical value. They were considered sacred places, a gateway to the spiritual world. They were one of the points in which to relate to the Gods through human sacrifices. Prisoners of war and young virgins were left to drown in a bloody way in their honor.

Not only. During recent explorations on the bottom of the cenote, gold jewels, precious objects and fabrics were found, which were probably thrown together with human sacrifices precisely to pay homage to the gods.

What to do in the cenotes?

Despite everything I've told you, the cenotes still have a great charm. As soon as I entered, I spent at least a couple of minutes staring at this marvel. After all, if I hadn't ended up working in the telecommunications world, I would probably be a geologist now as I wanted to go and study geology at the time. But this, to stay on the subject, is a thing of the past.

The first thing to do when entering a cenote is ... dive into the water. And I want to see well! With the heat in Mexico it is sacrilege not to cool off in these cool pools.

Can't you swim?

Are you afraid of the depth of the water and the fact that the water is dark and you can't see the bottom?

Do you want to snorkel but don't have a mask?

No problem, outside you can rent everything you need, from the mask to the life jacket. If you don't want to rent them, keep in mind that ropes have been installed in the cenotes from one end to the other that allow you to hang on and stay safe. Moreover, in some caves, such as those of Dzitnup, there are people who take care of security.

Alternative activities

Recently the interest in wanting to make guided dives inside the cenotes. Some are allowed without certification, for the more demanding ones it is mandatory to provide documentation of your diving skills.

It is certainly an interesting alternative. I haven't had the chance to see a cenote in depth but I found an article that is right for you. Talks about how to dive in the Mayan caves without a diving license.

The Dzitnup cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula

I just have to tell you about one of the most famous cenote. In reality it is about two caves and not just one. Dzitnup is the town located just after cenote Samula e X'quequén. I also discovered it by chance because I entered Dzitnup in the navigator and arrived in town. A local lady, with the kindness that distinguishes Mexicans, then showed me the correct path.

They are located a few kilometers from Valladolid (about 7km) towards Chichén Itza. I recommend that you combine them with the visit to the Mayan site (see also: the 5 best Mayan sites to visit) as I mentioned intwo week itinerary in Mexico.

The two cenotes are distant from each other. However, tickets must be purchased at the entrance of the whole complex. You can't go wrong, there is a large parking lot complete with a caretaker to whom you have to give the "propina". You don't know what the "tip“? You will learn this soon on your Mexican trip, or you can leave prepared by reading my article on tips for safe and organized travel to Mexico.

In any case ... it is the tip. Give your new Mexican friend a small tip and then you can buy the two tickets valid for the entrances to both caves.

Near the ticket office there are both toilets and a small bar where you can buy water or snacks.

Caution: at the entrance there will most likely be some guys with parrots. With the excuse of the birds they will stop you and ask you to take a picture which you will obviously pay dearly for. My advice is to go straight without being bothered too much.

As soon as you enter, on your left there will be the path to reach the cenote X'quequén, on the right instead the one for Samula.

Between the two the most particular is X'quequén as there are many limestone formations. Samula on the other hand I liked more for swimming.

When is the best time to visit them?

Absolutely around noon. This is due to the fact that at that time the sun is high in the sky and the light manages to filter through the small openings in the "ceiling" creating a very suggestive beam of light.

Other interesting cenotes in the Yucatan peninsula

In addition to the ones I just mentioned there are many other caves (hundreds) that you can explore, including:

  • Dos Ojos: it is probably the most famous in the Tulum area. It is located about 15 km from the town center and is also one of the most visited. The conformation to Dos Ojos means that there is a shallower part that is interesting for snorkelling and a deeper part linked instead to underwater activities.
  • I Kil: It is perfectly round, with vines hanging down towards the large body of water. It is located just 2km from the Mayan archaeological site of Chichén Itzà
  • Blue: is near Bacalar
  • Cuzama: located in the Merida area, also in this case it is an area. There are actually three cenotes.


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